What does it mean if petfood is ‘complete and balanced?’
Most commercial petfoods are formulated to be ‘complete and balanced’, ‘100 percent complete’ or ‘scientifically balanced.’ All of these phrases refer to the same thing: the petfood has been formulated to meet a recognised standard of minimum and maximum nutrients that a pet requires at the claimed ‘life stage’ on the packaging.
The official standard for dog and cat food in the US is established by the Association of American Feed Control Officials (AAFCO) and the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) through expert committees composed of veterinarians, companion animal nutritionists from academia, members of the animal food industry and the FDA.
The basis for these committees is to review all current and pending nutritional information for specific companion animals. The committees recommend minimum and maximum nutrient levels that should be formulated to ensure a safe and correct diet for each stage of life.
Essential nutrients versus non-essential nutrients in petfood
There are both essential and non-essential nutrients that animal scientists have identified for cats and dogs. These vary from 42 to 48 essential nutrients depending on whether this is for a kitten or puppy, a senior cat or dog. Non-essential nutrients are those that the pet can produce within its body from the foods it eats and are not required on a daily basis.
Essential nutrients, however, are those that the pet needs daily to maintain a healthy life, and these nutrients are specified in the AAFCO dog and cat nutrient profiles. The sources of these required nutrients come from ingredients and supplements (vitamins and minerals) making up the recipe of the selected petfood.
These ingredients are required to be listed in a descending order of inclusion amount under a section titled ‘ingredient listing,’ which is typically found on the back or side panel of the petfood package. The names of the ingredients listed follow terms used by the FDA and AAFCO in their regulatory rules and guidelines.
Balanced food dependent on age and type of pet
To ensure that petfood is complete and balanced, it must meet the minimum nutrient levels for the claimed life stage of the pet at the time of feeding. There are several stages of life, each with small changes or additional nutrients that are part of the requirements. For example, since a puppy requires a higher level of protein and energy, fat levels are listed in the label guarantee because fat is an excellent source of energy needed for ensuring proper growth.
Some minerals might be displayed in the guarantee because they are important. Calcium and phosphorus are needed for building strong bones, but in large dog breeds, excess levels could cause structural problems. Likewise, kittens have a higher protein requirement than puppies and need different levels of vitamins and minerals for their growth compared with an adult cat.
Complete and balanced petfood also means that proper levels of ‘crude protein’ (an animal feed term) are available for the pet, with higher levels required for reproduction, lactation and growth. Protein is made up of many amino acids, which are components of tissues, hormones and other metabolic functions of the body, so AAFCO lists amounts for essential amino acids that must be supplied on a daily basis. Fat is another essential nutrient that is listed as ‘crude fat’; however, like crude protein, fat has components of essential fatty acids that are required on a daily basis, such as omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids.
Vitamins and minerals can be found in individual ingredients. However, due to processing, such as grinding, cooking, drying and storage, some of these vitamins and minerals can change or lose their bioavailability, so fortification of the diet for essential vitamins and some minerals is required. Premium petfoods typically include proteinated trace minerals due to their higher bioavailability.
Like human food, pets need fibre and carbohydrates in their diets. Even dogs have demonstrated that they need some carbohydrates on a routine basis, and as dogs have evolved over time, they have developed genes that allow them to digest carbohydrates. Cats have the ability to handle a moderate level of carbohydrates in their diet quite well.
Fibre plays a significant role in helping pets control the passage rate of their food in their digestive tract. With cats, it helps limit hairball formations. You can see in the AAFCO requirements that crude fibre must be listed on the label in the section titled ‘Guaranteed Analysis,’ which shows the amount of fibre and other carbohydrate fractions found in the diet.
Even though AAFCO has not set any minimum or maximum levels on crude fibre in the nutrient profiles, this nutrient, which has many components, such as sugars, ligands and starches, helps maintains the balance of a complete diet.
Next time you are in the petfood aisle, check those labels to ensure your pet’s food is truly complete and balanced.